Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Patriarchy, Patrilineality, and Primogeniture

With movies such as the King's Speech recently out on DVD, and the media showering attention at the wedding of a bald bloke named Willy and his air hostess bride Katy, one can't help but be cognizant of the English hereditary system.

In my case, I was additionally reminiscent of conversations I had in college regarding the distinctions between the English and French systems of heredity. The English system confers all status and privilege to the eldest male born; by contrast, the French system distributed status and privilege among all male born. Both systems employed patriarchy and patrilineality, but only the English system additionally employed primogeniture. It seems like an inconsequential difference, but, as with mathematical fractals and chaos, any iterative rule-based system takes subtle deviations and manifests them into mammoth ones.

With the English and French rules of heredity, the English fiefdoms were never divided upon inheritance, whereas the French fiefdoms were continually divided and subdivided leaving a patchwork of ineffective plots of land ultimately conquered by another, not to mention the severe inflation French titles underwent as a result. This ultimately led to the French lords losing their grasp on power, as there were simply too many of them trying to uphold the standard of living meant for a much smaller group of their ancestors.

Well, my train of thought continued along this line, and yesterday I pondered, is there an even better iterative rule-based system for consolidating power? I envisioned the Medieval society, so it had to conform to patriarchy and patrilineality. However, I decided to bend the definition of patrilineality to non-contiguous patrilineality. That is, instead of a father bequeathing to his eldest son, let him bequeath to his eldest grandson. Seems like a subtle difference, doesn't it? But, as was demonstrated earlier, subtle differences in the rules can lead to large scale differences in impact.

Let's play it out, shall we? Suppose a man from the Montague family and a woman from the Capulet family form a union. If their son is the eldest among all his male cousins, on his Montague side as well as his Capulet side, then he would be twice-inherited, creating a merged Montague-Capulet colossus!

If the English system proved superior to the French system because estates were preserved rather than divided across inheritance, this new hypothetical system may have proven even more potent in this Medieval society by actually consolidating estates across inheritance. Noble families often intermarried to form alliances, but under the proposed hereditary system, you wouldn't get a mere alliance, but an actual consolidation of two families' estates into a single heir.

In fact, this phenomenon did occasionally happen in English noble society, but more by accident than by systematic forethought. Every so often, a couple was left with no male heirs, and in such cases their son-in-law or grandson could become twice-inherited. This happened with rarity, however, and was generally avoided because the maternal grandfather had the unenvious distinction of generally not being accorded by English society any influential role over either his son-in-law or his matrilineal grandson. In fact, much of the fortune in such circumstances was afforded to charity. By contrast, a hereditary system that specifically inherited across a more removed relation — from a grandfather to his eldest grandson — would confer far greater influence to such a grandfather over such a grandson.

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